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Thursday, March 8, 2007 | return to: news & features


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United in life, divided in death?: Interfaith burials meet difficult challenges

by sue fishkoff & dan pine, special to j.

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For Joseph Anisimov and his wife Elena Darcia, when death does them part, they will really be parted.

Three years ago Anisimov, a Daly City resident, bought a burial plot for himself at Eternal Home, a Jewish cemetery in Colma. His wife will be interred at Gates of Heaven, a Catholic cemetery in Los Altos.

Though they'd prefer to spend eternity side by side, each wants a funeral in the tradition of their faiths. He wants a Star of David on his tombstone; she wants a cross on hers.

In the afterlife business, that's a deal breaker.

It wasn't for lack of trying. "Obviously I would like to be buried at Gates of Heaven," he jokes, "because there you get guaranteed access to heaven, whereas [Jewish cemetery] Eternal Home has no guarantee."

Anisimov tried negotiating with officials at both cemeteries to see if there was a way, but to no avail. The rules are, as it were, set in stone.

"I have mixed feelings," said Anisimov, an émigré from the former Soviet Union. "I wouldn't mind being buried in the same place, but I would have to renounce Judaism and be buried with the crosses. That's a very difficult decision."

With the national intermarriage rate approaching 50 percent, more couples will confront the same difficult decision. Though the liberal streams of Judaism have worked out some accommodations for interfaith couples, Orthodox and, to an extent, Conservative Judaism continue to draw a fairly strict line.

"The halachah [Jewish law] is very clear," said Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, head of the chevra kadisha, or Jewish burial society, of Queens, N.Y. "Only members of the Jewish faith can be buried together."

On Dec. 3 of last year, the East Bay Jewish community marked the groundbreaking of Gan Shalom. Slated to open this summer as a nonprofit cemetery shared by five Reform and Conservative synagogues, it is seen as a solution to Bay Area Jewish cemeteries fast nearing capacity.

Insiders say its real purpose is to provide an alternative for the highly intermarried East Bay.

Gene Kaufman, executive director of the S.F.-based Sinai Memorial Chapel, which co-owns the new cemetery, expects Gan Shalom will have a small Orthodox section while most of the land will be open to interfaith burial.

"Normally," he said, "if a Jewish person is married to a non-Jewish spouse, and that spouse is going to be buried with either a Jewish service or a nonsectarian service, and there's an understanding that when the headstone is put in there will be no symbols of another faith, then [interfaith burial] is permissible."

Considering the Bay Area's reputation for liberalism, one might expect interfaith burials to be a common occurrence, but Kaufman said it actually doesn't come up all that often — at least not yet.

"I don't know why," he added. "It's probably because when there is a non-Jewish spouse, the [couple] doesn't follow the religion and ends up in a nonsectarian cemetery."

Jewish burial policy is complicated by details of ownership and operation. There are for-profit and nonprofit cemeteries; cemeteries operated by synagogues or groups of synagogues; independent Jewish cemeteries; Jewish sections of nonsectarian cemeteries; and other permutations, each following policies that vary across denominational lines.

While Orthodox-controlled cemeteries strictly follow Jewish law, most Reform cemeteries will bury non-Jews next to their immediate Jewish relatives. At Colma cemeteries Salem Memorial Park and Home of Peace, the catch is the plots must be purchased at the same time.

Some cemeteries will even allow cremated remains of a non-Jewish spouse to be buried together in the same plot (the funeral industry's two-for-one deal). However, non-Jewish graveside services or prayers are out of the question at all Jewish cemeteries.

Conservative rabbis are guided by a 1991 teshuvah, or responsum, of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that states Jews may not be buried next to non-Jews, but if it happens, that does not invalidate the cemetery's Jewish status.

That is relevant to the growing number of cemeteries shared by Conservative and Reform congregations, since the Reform will bury non-Jews and patrilineal-descended Jews (who are not considered Jewish by the Conservative movement). Conservative Jews may use such cemeteries, the teshuvah concludes.

The ruling leaves much discretion to individual rabbis. Many are asking the committee for clearer guidance, said the committee's chair, Rabbi Kassel Abelson. He is working on a new Conservative teshuvah "that will be more permissive."

That can't come soon enough for many in the field.

Martin Birnbaum, president of the Jewish Funeral Directors of America, said most Jewish cemeteries do not permit burial of non-Jews.

"Conservative cemeteries will accept cremains faster than a non-Jew," he said, referring to the Jewish prohibition on cremation.

While Birnbaum counsels intermarried couples to plan ahead and avoid buying plots in Jewish cemeteries, he sometimes has to tell mourners that their non-Jewish relative cannot be buried with the rest of the family.

"It's not my rule, but it comes out as my rule," he said. "So we come off looking like the bad guys."

The situation will grow only more pressing, said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

"If it's not at critical proportions, it soon will be, especially in the liberal movements," he said. "One-third of the Reform community is intermarried."

InterfaithFamily.com, a Boston-based organization that encourages intermarried couples to make Jewish choices, has just started listing Jewish cemeteries open to interfaith couples on its Web site. But such resources are rare.

"If our synagogues and official Jewish cemeteries don't provide options, families will simply opt out," Olitzky said.

That means choosing a nonsectarian cemetery or one maintained by a different faith. Catholic cemeteries, for example, permit the burial of non-Catholic spouses and often are chosen by intermarried couples.

"Families that are together in life should remain together in death," said Roman Szabelski, executive director of the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Birnbaum, who works in upstate New York, arranged the burial of a Jewish man married to a Catholic woman. The widow wanted her husband buried in a Catholic cemetery since the local Jewish one wouldn't take them. The deceased was a synagogue member, so his cantor officiated, although not at the gravesite.

"It was an interesting ceremony, to say the least," Birnbaum said.

The pressure on Jewish cemeteries to provide burial space for intermarried couples has increased dramatically, with many new initiatives in the past decade.

Stanley Kaplan is executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, which holds title to half the state's 200 Jewish cemeteries. None permitted interfaith burials in 1998 when Beit Olam was conceived. Intermarried couples chose non-Jewish cemeteries.

It was, Kaplan said, "a shanda," or shame, "that there was no Jewishness to their end-of-life ceremony."

More than 1,000 of the 2,000 burial sites were sold in the first three months, most to people in their 40s.

That's decades younger than the typical purchaser, Kaplan said, "but they knew if they didn't buy now, there wouldn't be space when they needed it."

In general, the problem is more acute in smaller towns. Larger cities can support more than one cemetery, providing both more liberal and more stringent options.

Birnbaum said his Conservative congregation in Syracuse, N.Y., runs a cemetery that won't bury non-Jews, "and that's par for the course in these smaller communities."

In the Midwest and the West, where intermarriage has often been higher than in the East, Jewish cemeteries historically have been more open to burying non-Jewish family members.

Tulsa, Okla., has two congregations, one Reform and one Conservative, and each owns a section of the city's cemetery. Both bury non-Jewish family members, said Rabbi Charles Sherman of Reform Temple Israel.

"Here in the middle of the country, we've faced the situation of non-Jewish spouses for a long time," Sherman said. "No one wanted to be in the position of denying a Jew burial in a Jewish cemetery."

There is no Jewish cemetery in Port Angeles, a small town along Washington's Pacific coast. Olympic B'nai Shalom Havurah, with 40 to 50 members, uses the public cemetery.

"There's no separate section," congregant John Debey said. "We just bury them."

As for Daly City's Joseph Anisimov, though he and his wife will have to spend eternity in separate ground, he believes the two of them have worked out a foolproof plan to find each other in the next world.

"When we get buried," he said, "we will each take our cell phones, and once we're up there we'll call each other."




Sue Fishkoff
writes for JTA; Dan Pine is a j. staff writer.


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